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5 key steps to make your Agile pilots succeed

Have you ever heard of Agile pilots? As an enterprise Agile coach, I believe that Agile pilots are one of the most effective ways to jump-start an Agile transformation within an organization. What are Agile pilots, you might ask? They involve setting up one or several fully Agile teams - cross-functional, autonomous, and supporting a product end-to-end - which then act as a lighthouse, illuminating the benefits and possibilities of Agile for the rest of the organization. The success of these pilots is essential as they lay the groundwork for broader Agile transformation.
However, the stakes are high. If these pilot teams falter, it can spell doom for your entire Agile transformation initiative. Over the years, I've had the privilege of guiding numerous Agile pilots during various organizational transformations. Through these experiences, I've gained insights into what makes Agile pilots succeed. In this post, I will share these key strategies with you, hoping they can guide you to a successful Agile transformation.

#1 Ensure Hands-On Support

The first key to success lies in providing adequate training and continuous support. New teams transitioning to Agile for the first time often face numerous challenges. While formal training like Product Owner or Scrum Master courses lay a solid foundation, they alone are not enough to ensure a smooth transition. This is where the role of an experienced Agile coach becomes critical.
A common mistake I've seen organizations make is thinking that a two-day training session is sufficient for setting up a fully functioning Agile team. However, creating a cohesive, motivated Agile team requires much more than just training; it requires experience and continuous guidance.
Yes, hiring a professional Agile coach might seem like a significant investment. But in the long run, the cost of not investing in hands-on support can be even higher, as it could jeopardize your entire Agile transformation. Therefore, consider hiring a skilled Agile coach as a valuable investment, not a cost, as it will greatly improve the likelihood of your Agile pilots' success.

#2 Minimize Business-As-Usual (BAU) Tasks

A common hurdle for Agile pilots arises when team members remain burdened with tasks from their "pre-Agile" times. Being part of an Agile team should not be an extracurricular activity; it should be the main focus. However, teams often struggle to juggle their new Agile responsibilities with their existing BAU tasks, which can derail the Agile transformation process.
Therefore, when initiating Agile pilots, it's crucial to minimize BAU tasks as much as possible. This will enable the team to fully concentrate on the product vision, goals, and value delivery, ensuring a smoother transition to Agile.
As your Agile transformation scales up, BAU tasks should be reviewed at an organizational level and redistributed among teams. You may even consider setting up dedicated teams whose sole focus is to "keep the lights on." It's essential that BAU tasks align with a team's vision and goals, don't disrupt their product work, and are owned by the team as a whole, not by individuals.
Tasks that add little value should be thoroughly evaluated; it might be more beneficial to either discard them entirely or outsource them. Striking a healthy balance between BAU tasks and Agile responsibilities is key to a successful Agile transformation.

#3 Secure Executive Sponsors

One often overlooked yet critical element in the success of Agile pilots is the presence of executive sponsors. Each Agile team should have an executive sponsor who can provide support during goal setting, secure necessary resources, and shield the team from unreasonable requests that may divert them from their goals.
It's important to note that an executive sponsor is not a team manager. They don't dictate the team's actions. Rather, they are there to provide support, guidance, and advocacy. The sponsor should be a senior individual within the organization with the influence needed to champion the team's efforts effectively.
The role of an executive sponsor is so critical that their training is as important as that of the Agile teams themselves. Sponsors must understand Agile values, be fully supportive of the Agile transformation, and have a clear understanding of their role in supporting the team. This can be a pivotal factor in a successful Agile pilot and, ultimately, the overall Agile transformation.

#4 Manage The Excitement

Being at the center of attention during an Agile transformation, pilot team members often find themselves imbued with an extra level of excitement. They diligently adhere to the new playbook and work hard to create a successful use case. While enthusiasm is a boon for any project, it is important to guide this energy properly in an Agile pilot.
To prevent any misalignment of expectations, it's crucial to communicate that Agile is not a magic potion that will deliver extraordinary results overnight. Yes, Agile will significantly enhance value delivery by focusing on the right problems and optimizing resource utilization, but it won't change the world instantly. Setting the right expectations can prevent the risk of creating disillusioned team members who could potentially turn into detractors rather than champions of Agile within your organization.
Moreover, it's important to ensure that the enthusiasm does not drive team members to exhaustion. The purpose of an Agile pilot isn't to create a tale of miraculous transformation by burning out a team. Rather, it's about gaining a realistic understanding of the applicability of Agile best practices within your organization and setting achievable expectations. Balancing enthusiasm with realism is key to maintaining a healthy, motivated team that can truly embody the Agile transformation.

#5 Be Mindful With Metrics

Measuring the success of an Agile transformation can be a slippery slope. It's crucial to understand that we shouldn't expect an immediate surge in outcomes such as sales, revenue, NPS, or productivity. In fact, these numbers might initially dip due to the inevitable adjustment period associated with implementing change.
As an Agile coach, I, along with many others, find it beneficial to rely on team health metrics for gauging short-term progress. These metrics provide insight into whether teams are continuously improving their processes and how effectively they are adapting to the Agile.
However, we must be cautious while setting our baseline for these metrics. It's a common phenomenon that the initial measurements tend to be inflated for several reasons: people might be overly optimistic about Agile, they might not fully understand the nuances of the questions due to their lack of familiarity with Agile, or they may lack a clear understanding of what constitutes 'good' in an Agile context.
Therefore, it's important to be careful while establishing your baseline and interpreting the metrics, especially in the early stages. Don't let a dip in numbers dishearten you; it's a natural part of the change process. Remember, the transformation journey is more about growth and learning than just numbers. Be patient, keep learning, and maintain your focus on the ultimate goal of Agile: delivering more value to the customers
Indeed, all the points we've discussed carry weight in building any Agile team, but setting up pilot teams for success has its unique significance. These are the teams that lay the groundwork for your Agile transformation, and their experiences will have a profound impact on the organization's overall adoption of Agile. We want them not just to perform, but to become Agile champions, sharing their enthusiasm and knowledge with others. As you journey through this Agile transformation, remember it's a long-term commitment that requires patience and continuous improvement. Wishing you the best of luck on this exciting endeavor, and don't forget, the journey itself is where you learn and grow the most.
Agile transformation Leadership Business Agility Agile coaching